The Godfather: Part II

The Godfather: Part II

“My father taught me many things here—he taught me in this room. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”

The Godfather was a cultural phenomenon when it came out in 1972 for many reasons. It was extremely well-written, and the cinematography and acting were great. Something that’s lost on modern viewers is how revolutionary the concept was. The Motion Picture Production Code, which was in effect until 1968, prevented things like violence and sex in movies, but it also forbid sympathetic portrayals of criminals. Some movies, like 1968’s Bonnie and Clyde, were quick to make use of this newfound freedom and featured criminals as the protagonists; but none had gone into as much depth as The Godfather. Showing a crime family as a real family, with family dinners and drama, had never been done before.

Two years later, The Godfather: Part II came out and delivered more of the same: fascinating character study and the smallest details of what had become the greatest crime empire in America. Once again directed by Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and starring Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, and Robert Duvall, this is a sequel that’s every bit as good as its predecessor—some say even better. It’s almost required to draw comparisons between the two, so here’s my take: the story was tighter and the quotes more memorable in the original, but the sequel goes into greater depth with the characters and has more emotion. For what it’s worth, I actually preferred the sequel, although both are amazing movies.

Continue reading “The Godfather: Part II”

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story

“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”

There have been a lot of Christmas movies over the years, but few that have really stood the test of time to be remembered long after they come out, and even fewer that are as fun to watch as A Christmas Story. Directed by Bob Clark (Porky’s) and starring Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, and Darren McGavin, this might just be the perfect Christmas movie. It’s wholesome and nostalgic without being sappy or boring. It’s witty and hilarious and these things seem to get better as the movie ages. And it’s uplifting without being preachy or puritanical. I didn’t watch a lot of movies growing up and I still don’t watch a lot of television, so I’m somewhat ashamed to say that I didn’t discover this movie until just a few years ago. I’m glad I did, though. This movie is a joy to watch, and it’s become one that really rings in Christmas for my family.

Continue reading “A Christmas Story”

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

“The Ring remains hidden. And that we should seek to destroy it has not yet entered their darkest dreams. And so the weapon of the Enemy is moving towards Mordor in the hands of a Hobbit. Each day brings it closer to the fires of Mount Doom.”

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the second film of the trilogy, picks up immediately where the first one left off. But with the groundwork of the plot and setting laid, it’s able to accomplish a lot more than its predecessor. The first film exuded a sense of wonder and magic as we discovered the world, got a taste of the power of Sauron and the orcs, and saw the heroics of its heroes. In this film, we see the full power of Sauron’s army and see the heroes begin to pull together an army of their own to counter it. The first film was magic and wonder, but this is pure, badass epic action, culminating in what may be the best battle sequence in any movie ever.

Continue reading “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”

Gladiator

Gladiator

“I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate; it’s the sand of the coliseum. He’ll bring them death—and they will love him for it.”

With a few notable exceptions, epic films set in ancient Rome were hard to come by, and good ones even more so. This is surprising—the setting is perfect for an epic film with amazing fight sequences, political intrigue, rich story and lore, and strong characters. In the year 2000, before Lord of the Rings reignited our passion for epics, Gladiator filled that gap with an amazing film. Directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) and starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, and Connie Nielsen, this is a film that brings the expansive and powerful Roman Empire to life like never before. I won’t say it’s a perfect film—it has its flaws. It’s stuck in a weird spot between a political drama and an action movie, and there are a few scenes that place dramatic flair above realism. But Gladiator is just so entertaining that it more than makes up for its flaws.

Continue reading “Gladiator”

Goodfellas

Goodfellas

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

Since The Godfather basically defined the crime genre in 1972, there have been a lot of imitators and followers, some good and some bad, but nothing ever came close to the original. It’s hard to compare, but I’d say that Goodfellas came pretty close in 1990. (Legendary critic Roger Ebert actually preferred Goodfellas to The Godfather.) Directed by Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, The Wolf of Wall Street) and starring Ray Liotta, Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci, and Lorraine Bracco, this is a mobster story with as much depth and humanity as The Godfather, but it shows a different side of the story. The Godfather shows the view at the top—the big boss and his family calling all the shots. Goodfellas shows the working man’s view of organized crime—a kid trying to break into the business and make a name for himself. The film is actually based on real-life mobsters, one of whom consulted on much of the film, so there’s a real authenticity to the film that’s missing in most crime films. It’s a great entry in the crime genre that I believe deserves a place right next to some of the biggest names in the genre.

Continue reading “Goodfellas”

Interstellar

Interstellar

“Perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.”

Ask someone today to list off famous sci-fi movies and you’ll get an eclectic list: Star Wars, Alien, E.T., Avatar, and many more. Science fiction was, at one point, an interesting but rather dry genre. Thematically, it was an exploration of the spirit and ethics of science—it provides answers, but it also provides questions, and those questions often end up being just as important as the answers. Classic sci-fi movies like 2001 and Planet of the Apes asked questions more than they provided answers, and that was the beauty of them. Soon, the lines blurred and sci-fi movies became more about incorporating scientific solutions into fast-moving, genre-mixing plots than asking questions.

In 2014, Interstellar brought sci-fi back to its roots. Directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) and starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain, this is a movie that uses the answers we have to uncover greater questions. It invokes a sense of wonder, even though it doesn’t answer all (or even most) of the questions it raises. But unlike classic sci-fi films, Interstellar is filled with suspense, drama, and plot twists that don’t detract from the traditional sci-fi elements. It’s a great modern take on classic sci-fi and there aren’t many movies like this being made today.

Continue reading “Interstellar”

The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid

“Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out the mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don’t forget to breathe, very important.”

I’ll be honest: I initially didn’t want to include The Karate Kid on this list. Directed by John G. Avildsen (Rocky) and starring Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, and Elisabeth Shue, it follows the underdog formula popularized by Rocky, but brings it into the 80s with the now-familiar stereotypes: the everyman teenage boy, the evil bully, the sweet girlfriend, the parent who just doesn’t get it. On paper, it looks very cliche and much like the sea of other 80s teen movies. I didn’t want to like it. But on a recent viewing, I realized that The Karate Kid has actually aged very well. The dialogue, while cheesy at times, has moments of clarity and humanity to keep the movie grounded. The villains are surprisingly well-written in the end (especially with some of the deleted scenes). Daniel is just such a likable character that it’s very hard not to like him. Even the martial arts aspects are very down-to-earth and not overdone (with a few notable exceptions from sensei Miyagi). If you can look past a bit of 80s camp and stereotyping, this is a real gem of a movie that still holds up well today.

Continue reading “The Karate Kid”

Walk the Line

Walk the Line

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

There are a few things in life that rarely impress me. Biopics, musical performances in movies, and country music are on the list. So you’d think I would hate Walk the Line, a musical biopic about country artist Johnny Cash—but I didn’t. Directed by James Mangold (Logan, Girl Interrupted) and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, this film does everything right. Its musical performances move the plot forward and aren’t just for decoration. It focuses on real-life characters without relying on nostalgia and idealized, romanticized versions of them. The music is excellent (Phoenix and Witherspoon performed all numbers live and did an amazing job), the characters are deep and fascinating, and the plot, while not wholly original, walks a careful line between dark and sweet. This is a biopic that would work just as well as a work of fiction, and that says a lot about the level of art involved.

Continue reading “Walk the Line”

This is Spinal Tap

This is Spinal Tap

“It’s such a fine line between stupid and, uh… clever.”

The concept of satire has been lost along the way of modern movie production. The American Heritage Dictionary defines satire as: “A literary work in which human foolishness or vice is attacked through irony, derision, or wit.” Most work marketed as satire today is instead simply parody, which imitates for comedic effect rather than use wit for social commentary. This is Spinal Tap, directed by Rob Reiner (Stand By Me, The Princess Bride) and starring Christopher Guest and Michael McKean, is a satire of the rock music scene of the late 70s and early 80s that uses parody as well as wit and derision to showcase how ridiculous it is. It’s produced as a documentary about a fictional band, and followed that formula so well that some viewers commented that they loved the movie, but wished it would have covered a more popular band. This mockumentary style has produced many films over the years, from Best in Show to Borat to What We Do in the Shadows, but my favorite remains This is Spinal Tap. It’s hilarious, memorable, extremely quotable, and earns its place as the greatest rock and roll comedy of all time.

Continue reading “This is Spinal Tap”

Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde

“This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker. I’m Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.”

In the early days of cinema there were no real restrictions. Some filmmakers pushed the envelope of tastefulness a little too far, resulting in the Motion Picture Production Code, which dictated moral standards in film from 1930 to the late 60s. Ask someone today to describe an “old-fashioned” movie, and they’ll probably end up describing this code. By the late 60s, enforcing the code became too cumbersome, so the MPAA began working on rolling out movie ratings to replace it—granting filmmakers many new freedoms that had not been available for almost 40 years. Films quickly came out that exercised this new freedom; but the first film to really use that freedom artfully was Bonnie and Clyde. Directed by Arthur Penn (Night Moves, Little Big Man) and starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, this movie shocked audiences with graphic violence and discussion of sexuality. It’s actually rather tame by today’s standards; but when it came out, there had never been another movie like it.

Continue reading “Bonnie and Clyde”